The terms “fast thinking” and “slow thinking” go back to Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman is a psychologist and Nobel Prize winner in economics who, with his congenial partner Amos Tversky, laid important foundations in behavioral psychology. Their focus is on human thought processes for decision making. Kahneman summarized these findings from his decades of research – his life’s work – in a 2011 book, “Fast Thinking, Slow Thinking.” In it, he describes two different systems that are responsible for our decision-making. He quite simply calls them System 1 and System 2.
What is fast thinking and what is slow thinking?
System 1 can be called “autopilot” and is the legacy of our evolutionary past. It works quickly and intuitively, it is both creative and associative, and it fools us into believing causality where none actually exists. At the same time, it is responsible for feelings and inclinations and gives us survival advantages by making quick judgments in order to act in threatening situations. It’s called quick thinking, and it feels simple and easy. Like driving down a straight country road in the sunshine as a skilled driver. System 1 decisions are seductive because they are made with a sense of cognitive ease. They give the appearance that all is well for us in our world.
On the other side is volitional System 2. It thinks and reflects, it generates conscious actions, and it exercises self-control. It is also responsible for making well-considered choices and is able to selectively focus its attention on things. Its strengths are logical thinking and statistical analysis. However, it does not reach the speed of System 1 and is therefore called slow thinking. Because we have to actively expend energy to think slowly, it feels strained and often tough.
It sounds like the two systems complement each other perfectly. So where is the challenge?
The challenge for our brain
Let’s look at the interaction of both systems: System 1 is the modus operandi, the mode in which our brain is always active. It constantly checks: Is danger imminent? Do I have to flee or attack? Is it too hot or too cold? It immediately detects physical comfort or discomfort and takes countermeasures.
In addition, there is another essential function: constantly checking whether System 2 needs to be activated. If a task is too complex and System 1 has the feeling that it cannot solve it on its own, it calls on System 2. However, it does this very reluctantly for one simple reason: Our brain is lazy and always follows the law of least resistance. This is typically lower in the modus operandi – System 1 – and more energy-saving than in System 2, which takes additional energy to activate.
(Illustration by Till Weinert)
Problems arise when complex tasks “disguise” themselves as simple tasks. Of course, they do not do this actively, we do this unconsciously ourselves. Therefore, it can happen that we act with fast thinking (System 1) in situations that are complex; however, the thinking power of System 2, i.e. slow thinking, would have been necessary for a reflected decision. This effect is particularly common in interactions between people. Our thinking will take any shortcut it can, in order to arrive at final judgments about our fellow human beings. The issue here is that these judgements are then based on inclinations and emotions.
Does an agile approach promote fast or slow thinking?
Agility actually offers us perfect conditions for slow thinking: Continuous inspection and adaptation to changing conditions, in other words the close-meshed review of decision making, are an essential part of agility. So is the accompanying failure culture, decentralization of decisions, perspective-rich dialog in cross-functional teams, and working in short and regular iterations. All of these are great opportunities for slow thinking and result in better decisions. However, they are based on a necessary prerequisite: transparency. That is, the availability of open, honest and reliable data and experiences. This is where Kahneman’s theory of human reasoning comes in: If this data is distorted by our thinking, with System 1 gleefully using mental shortcuts and suggesting connections where there are none, then we make our decisions based on false data.
Additionally, our environment is becoming more complex, more opaque, and less predictable. The reaction to this is often: higher, faster, further! And sometimes it seems that agility is fueling this mindless speed rush. Ubiquitous terms like Sprint or velocity or the popular book title “Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time” by Jeff Sutherland can create the false impression that agile methods are only about increasing speed.
Yet it is not about simply doing more in less time. It seems paradoxical, but the more we laze in unconscious fast thinking, the longer it will take to achieve our desired results. We hope by simply working harder and faster that the right thing will somehow be happen. The great strength of agility, however, is doing the right things at the right time. Faster is often doing less, while making sure what we do is the right thing. We need to prioritize, i.e., make decisions about which things are most valuable right now. To make those decisions, we need more slow thinking. Prioritization and slow thinking are therefore the keys to success that could lead to a desired speed.
(Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash)
At this point, we’d like to invite you to take a break. Consciously take the time to ask yourself the following questions and give yourself time to reflect upon them.
– For which decisions do you take too little time in your context?
– In which situations do you fall prey to quick thinking, even though slowness would be helpful?
– How can you take the time in your everyday life for more pauses in order to be able to make conscious decisions?
– What could help you activate your System 2 in these situations?
It’s quite possible that the things you should take more time for will take a while to emerge. Keyword: slow thinking!
In the spirit of a reflective Christmas season, we are also taking a break at this point. In the new year, we will start on the second part of this blog article by creating an awareness of the distortions to which our thinking is subject. After that, we’ll give you some ideas on what you can do to promote slow thinking.
We wish you a happy holiday season. Stay healthy!
Kahneman, Daniel (2011) Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York
Illustration by Till Weinert